How the King of Breakfast is waking up Asian Britain

DJ 'Shak' believes the UK's Asian audience is a sleeping giant ready to be roused.
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The Independent Online

In so far as such a thing exists, the British Asian community could probably boast as its distinguishing feature and admission criteria an especial proclivity for listening to the radio.

Not many other ethnic groups within Britain demand so much from their radio stations. Nor can many others boast such a sophisticated offering, not only in terms of variety and popular appeal, but also its influence within that community.

Two features define the radio stations targeted at the 2.5 million people of Asian origin in Britain at the moment: first, the cross-generational span; and second, booming growth.

The first point is borne out by the difference between the three main radio stations – Sunrise (AM 1458), BBC Asian Network (DAB, Sky, Freeview, and online), and, most recently, Club Asia (AM 963, AM 972, and online).

Sunrise, which was founded in the late 1980s by Dr Avtar Lit, and is now run by his son, the former Tory parliamentary candidate Tony Lit, focuses on older listeners within the Greater London area and reaches 328,000 people per week. The hugely successful BBC Asian Network covers a vast panoply of issues and music genres and reaches 405,000 people nationwide each week. And Club Asia, which, like Sunrise, is also broadcast chiefly within the M25, tends to focus on younger listeners and has 188,000 listeners.

Of the three, it is Club Asia that is growing fastest, and which offers the best clues as to the future of this market. Founded in February 2003 by sisters Humerah Khan and Sumerah Srivastava, the station is growing very quickly, and eating into the gulf between it and its rivals. Though there have been huge fluctuations in figures, the arrival at Club Asia in January of Ivor Etienne, who was previously Managing Director of Choice FM for 10 years, has boosted morale – and listening figures.

The new voice of the radio station, Shak (real name: Shak Yousuf) has moved from the 3pm to 7pm drivetime show to the Breakfast slot from 6am to 10am. His predecessor, Missy D, received 79,000 listeners a week, but within nine months of taking over the show, Shak has boosted the ratings to 85,000 – which, given he is restricted to London, is striking. BBC Asian Network's Adil Ray has many more listeners nationally, but only 39,000 in London, while Sunrise veteran Tony Patti, who is on air from 6am to 9am, has 148,000 in London alone. Considering Patti has nearly two decades of experience on Shak, that suggests a very healthy rivalry.

"It's definitely our aim to break the monopoly Sunrise has on the market," Shak says. "Our target audience is probably mostly in the 15-24 range, but all the young people who listen to us, and who become loyal, have elder relatives who they talk to about Club Asia. I would say this, but I'm convinced that if they listened to us just once instead of Patti they'd come over immediately, and not go back."

The Asian community, Shak says, have a penchant for radio because of the strength of their attachment to back home. "Whether they come from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan or wherever, anything that recreates a sense of their roots stirs them emotionally. That's partly about the music of course, with its culture and lyrics, but it's also about things we talk about, famous people and food and so on.

"The other big reason for the growth in Asian radio of course is simple: Bollywood. Apart from being the biggest film industry in the world, it has just the most incredible global reach. Look up the top 10 grossing films in Britain since the year 2000 and there's a Bollywood film in there every single year. British Asians can't get enough of it."

Shak, 26, grew up in Streatham. His family has roots in Faisalabad and Lahore, and though he hasn't been back to Pakistan since he was five, he plans to go next April. Having earned his presenting break with in-store radio for Virgin Megastores, based in Oxford Street, he now calls his Club Asia slot The Nashta Nooshta Show, a play on Punjabi meaning simply "the breakfast show". And, taking his lead from Bollywood megastar Shahrukh Khan, whose nickname is "Badshah", Shak is now known to listeners as "the Badshah of Nashta" – the King of Breakfast.

"The combined listeners of Club Asia, Sunrise, and BBC Asian Network comes to 921,000 a week, which out of 2.5 million is a huge proportion [34%]. And we've grabbed a huge slice of that market in just six years. If we keep our fingers on the pulse of the community and keep sounding fresh we can keep expanding. Some people within the Asian community still don't know we exist; once they do, we can make them ours."

"We're in a niche area still, but if you look across the media and find outlets that have understood their audience, talked to them, and responded to their demands, not many people have done it as well. Not in niche areas anyway."